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Harnett County and the Town of Lillington 

AUGUST 3, 1905 







Harnett County and the Town of Lillington 

AUGUST 3, 1905 











Ladies and Gentlemen: 

We have assembled on this occasion to celebrate the 50th 
anniversary of the founding of the town of Lillington, and 
to commemorate the life and services of the great patriot 
and soldier in whose honor the village was named. 

Situated as it is on the banks of the Cape Fear river, we 
are reminded of the fact that nearly every hamlet from 
Lillington to the sea is associated with some historic inci- 
dent which had its influence on the revolt of this colony 
from the government of England and the final wresting of 
its independence from the crown. 

The banks of the Cape Fear in colonial times were peopled 
by a race of Englishmen who for the valor, chivalry, and 
intelligence of its men and the purity, culture, and patriot- 
ism of its women have never been surpassed by any Anglo- 
Saxon settlement. 

There is something mysterious in the atmosphere which 
envelops this region, in the aroma of the pines which fills 
it, in the majestic sweep of the river as it rushes to the sea, 
in the soil which feeds its people, that stimulates ambition, 
excites patriotism, enkindles a pride of state, and reall}^ pro- 
duces in the inhabitant a yearning for the best of life. 

It was this region that produced Robert Howe, probably 
the greatest man yet born upon North Carolina soil, and 
furnished to the Revolution James Moore, the Ashes, Cor- 
nelius Harnett, Alexander Lillington, and a host of patriots 
whose names are indissolubly linked with the great struggle 
for American independence, and which has ever since then 
furnished men whose impress has been felt in the councils 
of the state and nation in shaping its policies for the general 

The province of North Carolina was from the earliest 
times ever jealous of the rights of Englishmen, which had 

been lianded down to its settlers as their inheritance and 
had been guaranteed to them in the Great Charter of the 
Forest. While it loyally sa})ported the crown so long as tlie 
crown respected the inherent rights of the people, yet when 
the home government taxed the colony without giving it a 
voice in the enactment of the law, and deprived it of local 
self-government, it earnestly and vigorously protested, and 
continued to protest until protest proved ineffectual, when 
revolt and revolution followed, which culminated in the 
establishment of American independence and the formation 
of the government of the American Union, which was then, 
is now, and ever will be an emphatic protest and warning 
against a colonial system of government. 

When the iniquitous stamp act of 1765 received the 
royal a})proval and the ship Diligence arrived in the Cape 
Fear river with the stamp })aper, it is a familiar tale to the 
people of North Carolina, and should be to all the people of 
the United States, how th(> stamp master was seized at 
Wilmington, in the presence of the royal governor, and 
openly and boldly carried to the public market-house and 
there made to take a solemn oath not to execute or offer to / 
execute the infamous law. ■^ 

It was then and there that Alexander Lillington first 
sprung into public gaze ; with Colonel John Ashe, Harnett, 
and Waddell, he participated in the seizure of the stamp 
master and wrote the communication to Governor Tryon, ' 
signed by Colonel Ashe, Lloyd, and himself, assuring the 
Governor of personal protection, but impressing upon him 
that the force under them would resist the enforcement of tlie 
law. Governor Tryon subsequently calling Lillington's bold 
act to the attention of the crown. 

Alexander Lillington was sprung from a noble ancestry — 
born in the year 1725, in Beaufort precinct, where his father, 
John Alexander Lillington, liad been treasurer, being left 
an orphan, he early moved with his uncle, Edward Mosely, 
about 1735, to Rocky Point, on the Cape Fear, near Wil- 
mington, where many of his mother's relatives (his mother 

being ISarali Porter) then resided. There he passed his 
early 3'ears and married Sarah Watters, and in this way 
became by blood and marriage connected with nearly all 
the prominent families of the Cape Fear region. 

He was the grandson of Major Alexander Lillington, the 
first Dei)nty Governor of the province, and who was Presi- 
dent of the Provincial Conncil in 1693 and also Governor. 

The oldest public record extant in North Carolina is a 
commission issued in 1679 to Alexander Lillington and to 
George Durand and others, authorizing them to act as con- 
servators of the peace in Berkeley county and to hold the 
courts in that precinct. 

This Governor Lillington was the son of George Lilling- 
ton, a distinguished gentleman and a major in the British 
army, who first settled in Massachusetts, then went to Bar- 
badoes, became a member of the Royal Council of that island, 
and towards the middle of the seventeenth century settled 
with his son in the Edenton section of this state. 

The family of Lillington possessed a coat-of-arms with 
three crescents, engraved with the motto " Liberty or Death," 
which seems afterwards to have been adopted as the watch- 
word of the patriots. 

Alexander Lillington, the subject of our discourse today, 
was well educated, as most of the gentlemen of the Caj^e 
Fear section then were, and was possessed of a good fortune 
and a large landed estate. 

He resided on his plantation on North East river, a dis- 
tance of about thirty miles by water and about half that 
distance by land from Wilmington, where his residence, 
Lillington Hall, was said to have been one of the best built 
and furnished mansions in the colony — specially noted and 
commented upon by many of the old residents, some now 
living, for the secret recesses built as hiding places for the 
women and children when attacked by hostile Indians or a 
retreat from Tory incursions. Lossing, in his Field Book of 
the American Revolution, gives a picture of it as one of the 
most notable homes of the colony. 

And here he lived and, except in the trying times of 
tlie Revolution, when absent in the field with his troops, he 
led the life of a gentleman, dispensing a most refined and 
lavish hospitality. 

General Lillington possessed a splendid figure and car- 
riage. He was six feet in height and had, it is said, hercu- 
lean strength, and few men of his day possessed greater per- 
sonal attractions. 

Inheriting a fondness for military life from his ancestry, 
after the repeal of the stamp act, which gave the colony 
hopes for the enjoyment of a long period of good government 
from the crown, and especially local self-government, when 
the war of the Regulators in Alamance broke out he became 
a lieutenant-colonel under Governor Tryon, and with Colo- 
nels Ashe and Caswell with the King's forces engaged in 
the battle with the Regulators in May, 1771. It is remark- 
able to note that in this battle on the King's side were Colo- 
nels Ashe, Caswell, Bryan, Lillington, Captain Moore, and 
even General Waddell and others, who became afterwards 
conspicuous leaders in the Revolution, thus exhibiting their 
loyalty and demonstrating the trutli of the declaration of 
Patrick Plenry, that in the beginning the patriots " aimed 
not at independence." 

I After the suppression of the insurrection in Alamance 
Governor Tryon was transferred to New York as governor 
of that state, and w^as succeeded in tlie province of North 
Carolina by Josiah Martin. Governor Martin was a man 
of fine ability and of good character ; but his execution of 
laws that had been passed for the colony were so rigid and 
the laws themselves so arbitrary that these very officers who 
had been under Tryon at Alamance resigned their commis- 
sions and afterward entered into an active resistance to the 
oppressions of the crown, and from thenceforth they devoted 
their lives, their fortunes, and sacred honor to the cause of 

Showing Colonel Lillington's prominence in the scheme 
and activity in promoting the cause, as early as January 4, 

1775, the freeholders of New Hanover county elected him a 
member of the Committee of Safety for that county. At all 
the meetings of the committee he was active and wise in 
its councils, and we find him in June, July, and October 
engaged in his duties, which had then become so important 
to the advancement of the cause. 

On August 8, 1775, the same day that Governor Martin 
issued his proclamation denouncing the Mecklenburg Re- 
solves, an election was held in New Hanover county for 
delegates to attend a congress to meet at Hillsboro. Colonel 
Lillington was elected by his constituents to this congress, 
and on the 24th of that month qualified as a member and 
actively participated in its deliberations, assisting in the 
preparation of the system of government for the colony in 
opposition to Governor Josiah Martin, who had then become 
governor in name merely, having no actual dominion except 
over the deck of a ship, holding his office on board His 
Majesty's ship the Cruiser in the Cape Fear river. The colony 
of North Carolina thus eff'ectually broke off" all allegiance 
to the crown and set the ball of revolution rolling. 

While a member of this congress and attending its sessions 
Colonel Lillington was appointed colonel of the Minutemen 
of the Wilmington district, when at the same time his com- 
patriot. Colonel Caswell, was appointed colonel of the Minute- 
men of the Newbern district. 

This same congress decided to raise two regiments of Con- 
tinental troops, and appointed James Moore colonel of the 
first and Robert Howe colonel of the second regiment, and 
formulated rules for the conduct of the military forces of 
the province, prescribing the precedence of rank and right 
to command as between the officers of the Continental troops, 
the Minutemen, and the militia, making the Continental 
colonel first in right to command, the colonel of tiie Minute- 
men second, each taking precedence of the colonel of the 

The adoption of these rules was the exhibition of wonder- 
ful wisdom and foresight, prevented friction, and produced 


luirmoiiy in the ranks of the North Carolina troops. Some 
of the other colonies failed to prescribe such rules, and had 
the misfortune to see serious and bitter disputes arise and a 
clash between Continental troops and the state militia, which 
on one prominent occasion resulted in a duel between two 
distinguished generals. 

When the year 177G was ushered in it found Governor 
Martin still in his refuge on the Cruiser on the Cape Fear 
river, endeavoring by proclamation and offer of commis- 
sions to excite the Scotch Highlanders of Cumberland and 
the Royalists of Orange and the Yadkin to rally to the 
King's standard to suppress the rebellion which had broken 
out. The committee of safety of the Wilmington district, 
ever alert in their observance of the governor's actions, dis- 
I)atched Colonel Moore, of the 1st Regiment of Continental 
troops, with his regiment, and the Minutemen of the Wil- 
mington district under Col. Alexander Lillington, Colonel 
Ashe with his volunteers, and Colonel Kenan with his 
militia to Rock Fish, just below Cross creek, where the 
Highlanders had assembled under General McDonald, with 
the view of being led to Governor Martin at Brunswick to 
form a junction with the forces of Sir Henry Clinton, which 
were expected there, to begin a campaign for the subjuga- 
tion of the colony. 

General McDonald Avith his Tory forces started out for 
Wilmington, when General Moore dispatched Colonels Lil- 
lington and Ashe to Moores Creek bridge. A special courier 
was sent to Colonel Caswell, who had been sent by the Com- 
mittee of Safety of the Newbern district to join General 
Moore's forces, to take possession of ('orbetts Ferry, while 
Colonel Thackston was ordered to take possession of Cross 
creek to cut off McDonald's return. Colonel Lillington had 
in the early evening of the 2bth of February arrived at 
Moores Creek bridge, crossed it, and immediately began to 
throw up entrenchments, both near to and about 100 yards 
from the bridge, on a sandy elevation. Colonel Caswell, 
finding that General McDonald's forces had crossed Black 

river about dve miles above him, withdrew his forces and 
proceeded to reinforce Colonel Lillington, already entrenched 
at the bridge, and arrived at the bridge after night. After 
Caswell and his men crossed over Colonel Lillington directed 
the bridge to be torn up by his forces and the girders to be 
greased with tallow and saturated with soft soap, which he 
had procured that evening from the patriot women living 
in the neighborhood, and there the two armies lay on their 
arms during the night of the 26th, in sight of each other. 

On the morning of the 27th the Highlanders, who were 
no strangers to war, many of whom had been at Culloden 
and had military training, determined to give battle, ex- 
pecting an easy victory over the raw and undisciplined 
patriots, and at early dawn the sound of the pibroch was 
heard and the weird strains of the bagpipe urged the 1,800 
Tories to the fray. They rushed forward to the attack, led 
by Captain McLeod, and John Campbell, second in command. 
They crossed the sleepers, the redoubtable Scotchmen fol- 
lowing, and, finding a small entrenchment next the bridge 
empty, advanced to within 30 paces of the breastworks behind 
which Colonel Lillington and his forces and the forces of 
Colonel Caswell were posted. 

Immediately Colonel Lillington led the advance, his men 
enthusiastically following him, and there in the forefront, 
with the silver crescent from his family escutcheon glittering 
on his hat in the morning sun, drove back the foe, putting 
them to flight, killing and wounding 30 Tories accounted 
for, and a numljer shot from the bridge and falling into 
the creek, and capturing 850 soldiers, together with guns, 
ammunition, wagons, and money, with which the student 
of history is familiar. - — 

While the movement of the troops and the assignment of 
the difi'erent officers to the positions on the river and at the 
bridge was made by Col. James Moore, to whom all honor 
should be given, and while Colonel Caswell assisted in the 
battle, history and tradition alike show that Colonel Lilling- 
ton was the hero, the prominent and conspicuous figure of 


the Battle of the Bridge ; and yet so early in history the 
Sampson and Schley procedure takes place. 

On the 2d of March Col. James Moore, in command, re- 
ports the battle to President Harnett, of the Provincial Coun- 
cil, mentioning both Caswell and Lillington, and on March 
4th the Congress passed a resolution of thanks to " Col. James 
Moore and all the brave officers and soldiers under him." 

But it remained for Colonel Caswell, instead of I'eporting 
the engagement, if he reported at all, to Colonel Moore, his 
superior officer, to make a report to the Provincial Council, 
and Congress passed a resolution thanking " Colonel Cas- 
well and the brave officers and soldiers under his com- 

But his cotemporaries accorded the chief glory of the 
battle to Col. Alexander l^illington, and by them and all 
students of history he is known as the hero of the Battle of 
the Bridge. 

The effect of this battle on the colony was electrical and 
far-reaching in its consequences. It not only suppressed 
the Tory uprising, but it gave confidence and hope to the 
patriot cause, which was felt by the Whig troops whenever 
led into action as the Revolution progressed. 

The memory of the Battle of the Bridge is therefore treas- 
ured not only by the inhabitants of Cape Fear who have a 
just pride in the achievements of their ancestors, but it is 
regarded in history as a pivotal point in the progress of the 
cause of the Revolution ; for today, in looking back through 
the vista of time, we can readily see if the Tory forces had 
won the day at the Battle of the Bridge, McDonald's forces 
would have been augmented by active Loyalists and by 
lukewarm Whigs, a junction would have been formed of 
the Loyalists throughout the whole colony with the forces 
of Sir Henry Clinton and Cornwallis on the Cape Fear, 
and long indeed would have been the struggle to dislodge 
the British from the province, and possibly independence 
lost to the dispirited patriots. 


8o, all honor to Alexander Lillingtou, the hero of the 
Battle of the Bridge, and the brave officers and soldiers with 
him, resolved to achieve on that day the motto of his silver 
crescent, " Liberty or Death." 

Colonel Lillington wore his honors with modesty, which 
had ever been a prominent element of his character and 
which is always associated with the truly brave man and 
genuine hero. It is said of him that modesty was an in- 
herited characteristic from his ancestry. No Lillington ever 
sought honor except as it lay in the path of duty ; or ever com- 
plained if preferment did not come ; or ever heralded his 
performances. If honors came, they were the result of merit, 
which an appreciative people voluntarily bestowed. 

After the Battle of the Bridge the Provincial Congress de- 
cided to furnish and equip a number of regiments for the 
common cause. On April 15, 1776, Colonel Lillington was 
appointed colonel of the 6th Regiment, and served with his 
command in the defense of the province. 

To the legislature of 1777, the first legislature that assem- 
bled after the election of a governor, Colonel Lillington was 
sent by New Hanover county to the House of Commons, and 
took an active part in its proceedings, aiding in passing tlie 
urgent legislation needed for the struggling colonists. 

The province with its new governor had begun to have 
peace at home, although the scenes of war were transferred 
to other portions of the Union. Really from the 29th of 
May, 1776, when the British fleet with Josiah Martin, Sir 
Henry Clinton, and Cornwallis sailed away from the Cape 
Fear river, the last vestige of royal power ceased and the 
province of North Carolina became quiet and was without 
interference from the royal government until 1781. 

During this period, soon after the expiration of his term 
in the legislature of 1777, Colonel Lillington was made a 
brigadier general and placed in charge of the Wilmington 
Military District. Here he was kept busy in recruiting his 
forces and preparing them by drill and otherwise to repel 
any return of the British force to the Cape Fear and in 


suppressinjjj any sporadic Tory ui)risiiig which constantly 

On November 13, 1779, the governor of the state, as com- 
mander-in-chief, directed General Lillington to take com- 
mand of the troops and place himself in readiness to proceed 
south to the assistance of General Lincoln and his forces in 
South Carolina. 

In December he proceeded to Brunswick with a small 
force, there to await the arrival of the Duplin and Bladen 

On January 10, 1780, we find him encamped with his 
troops near Little river, or the boundary, and on January 28 
he arrived at CUiarleston, where he was put under Genera! 
Lincoln. Being sent by General Lincoln southward toward 
Savannah, he there remained until aftei' the fall of Charles- 
ton, and, not being thereat, was not included by General 
Lincoln in his surrender. After the fall of Charleston, in 
May, 1780, and the disastrous battle of Camden in which he 
fought, finding that the Cape Fear region and his own state 
was about to be invaded again, he withdrew his command 
to Georgetown or that vicinity, but afterward was ordered to 
return to the Cape Fear, but arrived to findtliat the British 
under Major Craig had sailed from Charleston with 400 
British regulars, and had captured the town on January 29, 
1781, and was then in possession with a strong garrison. 

Just as soon as the capture of AVilmington by Major Craig 
had been made the news spread through the u[)per Cape 
Fear. The irrepressible Scotch Tory, whose loyalty had been 
smoldering, encouraged l)y the emissaries of Major Craig, 
who Avere sent among them secretly with assistance, began 
to embody again, and, upon the retreat of General Green 
across the Dan into Virginia, General Lillington, with his 
corps, was sent to Cross Creek to overawe or dissuade them 
from their purpose, and so successful was he, by his firm 
and kindly course toward them, that when a month later 
Cornwallis went to Cross creek on his march to Wilmington 
from Guilford these lovalists had become active 


or passive Whigs. Coriivvallis in a letter written to General 
Clinton stated that " North Carolina is, of all the provinces 
of America, the most difficult to attack (unless material 
assistance could be e^ot from the inhubitants, the contrary 
of which I have sufficiently experienced)." 
I When Cornwallis, on April 7, 1781, reached Wilmington 
and joined Major Craig, General Lillington, with his corps, 
was directed to watch Cornwallis and confine the incursion 
of Craig and his men to as narrow a compass as possible. 
Cornwallis, liowever, refreshed his men and replenished his 
commissar}', having his headquarters at the present resi- 
dence of Mrs. A\^. H. McRary, still standing ; there he re- 
mained for eighteen days, and then began his last march 
to Virginia, where, in October of the same year, he surren- 
dered his forces at Yorktown. 

On this march northward toward Halifax he was con- 
stantly harassed by General Lillington's troops without 
any decisive engagement, Lillington's troops at that time 
being very short of ammunition. In fact, in a letter to the 
Governor at this time, he stated that his force was so reduced 
in ammunition that it had but one round left. 

When, on the 17th of April, Cornwallis had passed McLain's 
bridge, Major Craig set out with a considerable force to 
capture Newbern. Learning of this, Lillington diverted his 
troops at once to the pursuit of Craig. At Richlands, Onslow 
county, he found him advancing with 800 Tories and regu- 
lars from Rutherford's mills, but upon the marching of 
Colonel Caswell from Newbern to join Colonel Kenan in 
Duplin, and thus form a junction with Lillington, Craig 
returns to Wilmington. During the period from April to 
July numerous small engagements took place between the 
Whigs and Tories, notably the engagement at Elizabeth- 
town, which was so gallantly captured by Colonel Brown 
and his compatriots, and that at Rock Fish creek, in Duplin, 
where the Whig forces were repulsed with a loss of 30 killed. 

Major Craig, the Britisli commander at Wilmington, was 
not idle in his actions against the Whig forces. He sent out 


foraging parties in all directions, and a number of these 
penetrated far into the interior of the state. One proceeded 
as far as Hillsboro under the command of the notorious 
David Fanning and a Scotch Tory, Hector McNeill, and there 
captured and carried away the Governor, Thomas Burke, and 
other prominent Whigs, and speedily took them to Wilming- 
ton, where they were imprisoned and afterwards sent to 
Charleston for more secure detention. Another captured 
the great patriot and leader Cornelius Harnett, bound him 
with cords and, with his arms pinioned behind him, carried 
him on horseback to Wilmington, where he died in captivity 
and was buried by the hands of friends under Tory supervis- 
ion in the old St. James churchyard, where his remains 
still lie. Another party captured General Ashe, who was 
likewise spirited off to Wilmington, and there imprisoned 
liim with other Whigs in the common goal, where he con- 
tracted a virulent case of smallpox, and was only released 
in time to die at his home, near Clinton, a few days after his 

The surrender of Cornwallis, however, taking place in 
October, at Yorktown, Craig called in all his forces, and, 
fearing an attack by Lillington's forces, now encouraged by 
the news of the surrender, took his effects and troops aboard 
the transports lying in the river and sailed away from Wil- 
mington to Charleston, thus ending forever the British oc- 
cupation of North Carolina. ^ 

Upon the evacuation of Wilmington by Craig, General 
Lillington, with his forces, took possession again of the town, 
and were hailed b}'' the inhabitants with great rejoicing, 
having been for over nine months chafing under the domi- 
nation of Craig, the invader. The citizens of Wilmington 
during the occupancy of Craig remained loyal and true to the 
cause of Independence and did not receive or ask his favor 
or swear allegiance to the King, as did many of the inhab- 
itants of Charleston to Sir Henry Clinton on the surrender 
of General Lincoln ; but they sustained their reputation 
as the leaders of the Revolution, which they proudly claim 
even down to this day as their glory. 


General Lillington continued in the command of the 
state troops in the Wibnington district until the treaty of 
peace was finally signed, in the fall of 1783. During this 
time, under Governor Alex. Martin, besides superintending 
and ordering the exchange of prisoners at Wilmington under 
flags of truce from Charleston, he was frequently called 
upon to assist in upholding and enforcing the administra- 
tion of law, when called upon by the civil authorities, until 
he was finally mustered out of service. 

Like the military leaders of the time, however, he took 
no relish in observing the harsh execution of the drastic 
and heartless confiscation laws. Like his great friend and 
fellow-soldier Major General Howe, he felt it to be the part 
of the victor to be magnanimous to the vanquished, and at 
one time Governor Martin complained of his indifference to 
the orders of the executive in this respect; but Lillington 
was in hearty sympathy with the able and spirited protest 
and petition of the ladies of Wilmington, sent at this time 
to Governor Martin, asking the governor to revoke his order 
for the deportation of the women and children of the mis- 
guided Tories and the sequestration of their estates. 

The military leaders all seemed to oppose these laws 
against the Tories. It was said of General Marion that 
when the sister province of South Carolina had passed a 
similar law, being invited to a dinner at Governor Mat- 
thews' table, toasted, "Here is damnation to the Confiscation 

And when we reflect how utterly severe the confiscation 
and deportation laws were and how rigidl}' they were en- 
forced, extending them to estates of children whose inher- 
itances came not from a Tory father, it would have been more 
to the honor and credit of the state had they never been passed, 
and North Carolina, entering on her new career of sover- 
eignty, would have at once invited to her domain an English- 
speaking people, who would have been attracted by a spirit 
and policy of toleration and liberality. General Lillington, 
after the war, retired to his home, Lillington Hall, and there, 
in his declining years, led the life of a hospitable gentleman 


of wealth, beloved alike by the rich and the poor, and by 
none esteemed more than by those who had at one time 
been Tories, yet who, notwithstanding his activity in the 
patriot cause, for his broad charit}" of feeling, preserved for 
him at all times the highest respect and admiration. 

Tradition says that Lillington Hall was more than once 
saved from the torch of the l^ritish by the Tory who had 
been ever his admirer and once his friend. And here, in 
the bosom of his family, amid the scenes of his actions in 
war, still engaged in the pursuit of agriculture, rich in the 
affections of his countrymen, liaving his name deeply en- 
graved on the scroll of history, at peace with all mankind, 
he was gathered to his fathers and buried in the family vault, 
leaving tlie following inscription carved by his friends and 
neighbors on his tomb — a just tribute to his memory : 

Beneath this Stone, 

Lie the mortal remains of 


John Alexander Lillington 

A soldier of the Revohition 

Wlio died in 178G 

He commanded the American P'orces 

At the Battle of Moores Creek 

On the 27th February 1776 ; — 

And by his Military Skill 

And Oool Courage in the Field, 

At the head of his troops, secured a 

Complete and decisive victoiy. 

To intellectual powers of a high order 

He united an incorruptible integrity 

And a devoted and self-sacrificing patriotism ; 

A genuine lover of Liberty — 

He imperilled his all to secure the 

Independence of his Country 

And died in a good old age 

Bequeathing to his posterity 

Tlie remembrance of his virtues — 



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